VIENNA (Reuters) - The Catholic Church as a whole must accept its guilt and its collective responsibility for sexual abuse committed by its members, Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn said on Wednesday.
Schoenborn was addressing 3,000 believers in an emotional and unconventional mass ahead of Easter entitled "We are furious, God!" and devoted solely to the theme of abuse. The church has been shaken by revelations of sexual abuse by priests several European countries and of cover-ups by the hierarchy.
"Some of us have talked about the gracious God and yet done evil to those who were entrusted to them," Schoenborn said in Vienna's gothic St. Stephen's Cathedral in a ceremony held with the critical lay group "We Are Church" and abuse victims.
"Some of us have used sexual violence... Some of us have robbed boys and girls of their childhood," he said in a part of the service he read together with an Austrian theologian.
Schoenborn, who was brought into the prominent Vienna position after his predecessor quit amid sexual abuse charges in 1995, also admitted cover-ups. "For some of us, the church's immaculate appearance was more important than anything else."
"We, the people of God, His church, carry this guilt together," he said. "We confess our guilt to the many whom we have wronged as church, and whom some of us have wronged very directly."
A wave of reports of child sexual abuse in Austrian Catholic institutions was triggered by the resignation of the arch-abbot of Salzburg's St Peter's monastery earlier this month after admitting to sexually abusing a boy 40 years ago.
During the Wednesday evening service, accounts of abuse victims or their relatives were read that told of their suffering, even years or decades later, of anger against the perpetrators and the Church who did not hold them accountable.
Similar revelations in church and secular institutions in Germany have also encouraged more Austrian victims to report cases, many of which happened decades ago. More than 500 have called regional church hotlines for victims this year so far.
"It's a painful experience for the church. But what is this pain compared to the pain of the victims that we have ignored," he said. "When those victims now speak, then God is speaking to us, to His church, to awaken and to cleanse us."
Recent abuse scandals in European countries including Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands have shaken the Vatican and led to calls for an end to priestly celibacy, a cleanout of the Catholic Church hierarchy and the resignation of the Pope, although this is seen as unlikely.
Schoenborn, a close advisor and former student of Pope Benedict, has already called for the Church to openly discuss taboo issues such as celibacy, priestly training and more liberal social attitudes to sex.
Schoenborn has been one of the most open prelates toward victims' abuse groups and has dismissed tendencies in the Church to sidestep criticism by blaming anti-catholic media bias and pointing to abuse in secular context.
"Abuse within the Church is particularly severe because it disgraces the holy name of God," he said.
Writing by Boris Groendahl; editing by Ralph Boulton